Book Expo is a massive event. The floor is crowded with publishers hawking their wares. There’s acres and acres of books. It’s quite an operation really. But whether intentionally or by design, the folks behind the Expo are making it pretty tough to cover this event, especially if you’re a blogger. As Sarah and Ed have mentioned, there is almost no Internet access. Supposedly you can pay $5 an hour for wireless access, or the incredible price of $50 for the day. Everyone is subject to this charge, even those who have press passes. There is a press room (which is where I am right now), but there’s no wireless access there either. Instead there’s three computers with signs posted above them that say “Please limit your time to 15 minutes when others are waiting.” It makes it hard to blog, is all.
Readings and panel discussions generally serve as excuses to go see our favorite writers in person. By contrast, the great virtue of the PEN World Voices Festival is the range of discoveries it affords. Now in its fifth year, the festival brings writers from all over the globe to Manhattan for a series of mostly free and brilliantly curated events. Without the PEN festival, I wouldn’t have gotten to know and admire the work of writers including Péter Esterházy, Alain Mabanckou, Tatyana Tolstaya, and Horacio Castellanos Moya.That said, plotting a path through the packed schedule gets a little more difficult each year. Fiendish counter-programming, the imperative to avoid cover charges, and the difficulty of traveling, say 55 city blocks in under 10 minutes in the rain (true story) require that festival-goers muster some strategy. If you’re going to be in New York between April 29 and May 3 (for, say, The Millions’ Walking Tour of Independent Bookstores) I can offer you the following tips for navigating PEN World Voices: Town Hall = long; Joe’s Pub = fun; Austrian Cultural Forum = cramped; NYRB = expensive.Perhaps more productively, here are some highlights from this year’s schedule, free unless otherwise noted:April 29Anagrama: Celebrating 40 Years of Independent Publishing in Spainwith Francisco Goldman, A.M. Homes, Siri Hustvedt, Daniel Sada, and Enrique Vila-Matas; moderated by Jorge Herralde6-7:30 p.m., Instituto Cervantes New York, 211-215 East 49th StreetApril 30Tendencies in Spanish Language Literaturewith Bernardo Atxaga, Javier Calvo, Santiago Roncagliolo, and Enrique Vila-Matas; moderated by Barbara Epler4 p.m.-5:30 p.m., Instituto Cervantes New York, 211-215 East 49th StreetLanguage in New Forms: The Work of Andrey Platonovwith T.J. Clark, Wendy Lesser, Michael Ondaatje, and Francine Prose6-7:30 p.m., Elebash Recital Hall, CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth AvenueKafka in Americawith Louis Begley, Norbert Gstrein, Mark Harman, Lynne Tillman, and Colm Tóibín; moderated by Jonathan Taylor6:30-8 p.m., Austrian Cultural Forum, 11 East 52nd Street (reservations required)The New York Review of Books: The Economic Crisis and How to Deal With Itwith Senator Bill Bradley, Niall Ferguson, Paul Krugman, Nouriel Roubini, George Soros, and Robin Wells; moderated by Jeff Madrick and introduced by Robert Silvers7:30 p.m., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, 1000 Fifth Avenue; enter for the event at Fifth Avenue and 83rd Street ($25/$20 PEN members/Metropolitan Museum of Art members and New York Review of Books subscribers)DEFIANCE: The Spirit of ’89with Eszter Babarczy, Jose Dalisay, Nick Flynn, Sergio Ramírez, Hwang Sok-Yong, János Térey, and Paul Verhaeghen9 p.m., Joe’s Pub, 425 Lafayette Street ($15/$10 PEN & ACLU members)May 1Left/Right Literature: The Politics of Taking Up the Penwith Nadeem Aslam, Norbert Gstrein, Mariken Jongman, Khet Mar, and Domenico Starnone1-2:30 p.m., Scandinavia House, 58 Park AvenueThe Language of Fear: A PEN Journal Eventwith Guillermo Fadanelli, Wayne Koestenbaum, Colum McCann, Kathrin Röggla, and Anya Ulinich; moderated by Jeffrey Lependorf6-7:30 p.m., Elebash Recital Hall, CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth AvenueFour/Négywith Eszter Babarczy, Zsófia Bán, László Garaczi, and János Térey6:30-7:30 p.m., Deutsches Haus, 42 Washington MewsArmin Petras: We Are Camera7:30 p.m., Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth AvenueMay 2Mark Z. Danielewski and Rick Moody in Conversation1-2 p.m., The French Institute, Alliance Française: Florence Gould Hall: 55 East 59th StreetWhere Truth Lies: A Conversation on the Art of Fictionwith Marlon James, Jan Kjærstad, Horacio Castellanos Moya, and Roxana Robinson; moderated by Noreen Tomassi1 p.m., location TBAWriters Who Are Translatorswith Brian Evenson, Forrest Gander, Cole Swensen, and Paul Verhaeghen; moderated by Martin Riker3 p.m., FIAF, Tinker Auditorium, 55 East 59th StreetConversation: Pétér Nádas and Daniel Mendelsohn3-4 p.m., Elebash Recital Hall, CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth AvenueThe PEN Cabaretwith Laurie Anderson, Carrie Brownstein, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Steve Connell, David Conrad, Mark Z. Danielewski, James Franco, Peter Hirsch, Nick Laird, Walter Mosley, Parker Posey, Lou Reed, Sekou, and Sean Wilsey7:30 p.m., FIAF, Florence Gould Hall, 55 East 59th Street ($30/$25 FIAF/PEN members/students)May 3The Pan-European Picnic Redux1 p.m., venue TBAFaith & Fictionwith Nadeem Aslam, Brian Evenson, Jan Kjærstad, and Rick Moody; moderated by Albert Mobilio1 p.m., powerHouse Arena, 37 Main Street, BrooklynConversation: Richard Ford and Nam Le2-3 p.m., The Morgan Library & Museum, Gilder Lehrman Hall, 225 Madison Avenue
Among the core missions of International PEN is “the defense of writers and of freedom of expression around the world.” In the last two decades, as Salman Rushdie has been both its beneficiary and its champion, this mission has become increasingly visible. However, the artistic defense of freedom of expression is a tricky thing; political self-satisfaction can impinge on the creative writer’s various commitments to silence, cunning, and exile, not to mention irony. There have been events in the past where the celebration of PEN’s core mission has seemed out-of-sync with circumstances. (Should we really be congratulating ourselves for mingling on a cruise ship?) And so, on Thursday night, when I headed to the velvet-draped precincts of Joe’s Pub for “Something to Hide: Writers Against the Surveillance State,” I was a bit nervous. I don’t want to be told what a hero I am for drinking my $7 beer, any more than I want to be told that I can do my part for the Global War on Terror by going shopping.I needn’t have worried (except, perhaps, about my own incipient cynicism). Both in its intelligent planning and in the sensitivity and humility of its participants, “Something to Hide” focused attention on victims of the surveillance state, rather than flattering the good conscience of the audience.The key to the evening’s success, I think, was that writers were asked to read from work other than their own. After quick introductions from PEN president Francine Prose and ACLU director Anthony Romero, a surprise guest took the stage: Wallace Shawn. My pleasure at seeing a favorite writer perform quickly faded into absorption in the performance. Shawn delivered a dramatic reading of Acting U.S. Attorney General James B. Comey’s testimony before Congress, in which White House Council Alberto Gonzalez and Chief of Staff Andrew Card attempt to harass a hospitalized John Ashcroft into signing off on the warrantless wiretapping of American citizens. Shawn is as passionate and idiosyncratic an actor as he is a playwright, and the reading was surprisingly moving. It was a reminder that, despite the excesses of the last eight years, dedicated civil servants still remain the backbone of our government. (Or remained – Comey resigned shortly after the scene at Ashcroft’s bedside.)The evening’s poets, Chenjerai Hove of Zimbabwe and Irakli Kakabadze of Georgia, recited political poems by friends and colleagues, and perhaps because of the translation, the work itself seemed more strident than beautiful. That said, these are two writers who have felt first-hand the corrosive effects of government surveillance, and their introductory remarks provided a much-needed international context for the evening’s theme.Conceptual artists Hasan Elahi and Jenny Marketou explored the dimensions of surveillance at home. Elahi, who spent time on the FBI terrorist watch list, showed slides from a project in which he keeps the FBI constantly updated on his whereabouts. “If they want to know what I’m doing, that’s fine, but they’re going to know everything. If I go to the toilet, they’re going to go with me.” Marketou read an FBI transcript in which two G-men follow Andy Warhol to New Mexico for the shooting of a porn film. They complain about lascivious dancing cowboys and the lack of character development. Thirty-odd years later, audience laughter at Joe’s Pub was both loud and anxious. La plus ça change…The Hungarian Peter Esterhazy reprised Wednesday’s triumphant appearance at Town Hall, here reading from the great Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal. It’s a testament to Esterhazy’s charisma that his reading, in a language I don’t speak, was more evocative than the reading by his translator that followed. Ingo Schulze of Germany (whose latest novel, New Lives, will be published this fall), read from Through the Looking Glass, making Lewis Carroll sound positively Orwellian.Finally, the evening’s second surprise guest, Deborah Eisenberg wrapped things up with a reading from the Argentine writer Humberto Constantini’s The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis I’ve heard Eisenberg, one of my two or three favorite living American writers, read from her own work before; what was remarkable was the way she inhabited the sentences of another writer. I was half-convinced she’d written the excerpt herself. (I would have the same feeling on Saturday afternoon, hearing her read from Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten).Eisenberg and Shawn have for years been vocal critics of the excesses of the American defense establishment; it speaks to the power of their artistry that each is able to write explicitly about political themes without sacrificing aesthetic power. In the end “Something to Hide” served not only as a primer on the iniquity of state-sponsored surveillance, but as a reminder that art and politics need not be mutually exclusive. Indeed, given sufficient humility and tolerance for ambiguity on the part of artists, each can be made to further the interests of the other.
The long and honorable friendship between books and beer was toasted afresh last month when a beer tavern was named after Cormac McCarthy’s sad and funny lowlife novel, Suttree. Book and bar are both located in the city of McCarthy’s boyhood, Knoxville, Tenn.
Suttree’s High Gravity Beer Tavern is owned by the bibliophile husband-wife team of Matt Pacetti and Anne Ford, who have wisely made no attempt to belabor the Suttree connection beyond the name, thus keeping any potential kitsch-making at bay. The tavern is a deep and stylish space with saloon signage, polished wooden floors, an enormous rustic bar cobbled from old floors, and an appealing list of craft beer and wine. The semi-reclusive Cormac McCarthy, who lives in New Mexico, has been told about the new venture and wishes it well.
Suttree follows the story of Cornelius Suttree, a quiet young man who has chosen to renounce his rich, white Roman Catholic background in order to live as a fisherman on the Tennessee River and befriend a fascinating cast of back-alley boulevardiers, each of whom is sketched with tremendous solicitude and humor. Often called “Knoxville’s Dubliners,” Suttree provides an intense, forensic snapshot into Knoxville’s streets and soul. It offers the reader no racy plot or salvific climax, just an uncured slice of life. There are parts of this book that will make you laugh and others that will make your stomach coil in anguish. And while it’s a challenging read, with large slabs of poetic prose and funny words, it also contains the great themes that McCarthy’s more celebrated novels like No Country for Old Men, Blood Meridian, and The Road explore -– faith, violence, old men, death, and individual courage. Sadly, many young Knoxvillians haven’t even heard of the book. Matt has had to fend more than one query on why he’s chosen such an odd name for his bar. But for those who have read and enjoyed it, it’s not hard to see why Suttree has a special place in Knoxville’s heart.
The new bar, in clientele, character, and cuisine (edamame hummus with pita chips), is a far throw from the Huddle, old Sut’s favorite boozer patronized by – prepare yourself for this lovely McCarthyian litany -– “thieves, derelicts, miscreants, pariahs, poltroons, spalpeens, curmudgeons, clotpolls, murderers, gamblers, bawds, whores, trulls, brigands, topers, tosspots, sots and archsots, lobcocks, smellsocks, runagates, rakes, and other assorted and felonious debauchees.” But is not entirely devoid of textual atmosphere. For one, it’s located on Gay Street, a hip downtown thoroughfare that features frequently and significantly in the book, and on which Suttree’s friend J Bone tells him of the death of his son, whom he has abandoned along with his wife, though we are never really told why. In another nice if unintentional touch, one long wall is painted with giant black tree trunks that recall a strange interlude in the novel when a Suttree in spiritual extremis retreats into a “black and bereaved” spruce wilderness and meets, not Satan, but a deer poacher, with whom he has a conversation that is as absurd as it is profound.
Is that a crossbow?
I’ve heard it called that.
How many crosses have you killed with it?
It’s killed more meat than you could bear.
Matt and Anne have also been asked, hopefully, if their menu has a melon cocktail. The disappointing answer is no. Perhaps this is one crowd-pleasing textual connection that might be worth exploring. The melon has an exalted place in the novel because of a ridiculous but tender scene in which a young botanical pervert call Gene Harrogate steals into the fields by nights, shucks off his overalls, and begins to mount melons in the soil. He does this for several nights till the farmer who owns the melon patch shoots him in the backside. Then, mortified at the memory of the thin boy howling in pain, he brings him an ice-cream in hospital. (This tiny but extraordinary act of kindness reminded me of young Pip in Great Expectations bringing the starving Magwitch a pork pie in the marshes.) Gene ends up in the workhouse where he meets Suttree and attaches himself to him. Together, the rat-faced but likeable felon and the ascetic, grey-eyed Suttree make for a comic but charming Felonious Monk pair. Though Suttree was published in 1979, it is set in America’s decade of conformity and suspicion, the 1950s, and one can easily imagine McCarthy gleefully adding the melon-mounting scene to his already gloriously debauched House Un-American Activities Committee.
Over the years, a Suttree subculture of sorts has sprung up in Knoxville among the small but ardent group of McCarthy aficionados. Local poet Jack Rentfro has written a song based on all the dictionary-dependent words in the book (analoid, squaloid, moiled, and so on); University of Tennessee professor Wes Morgan has set up a website, “Searching for Suttree,” with pictures of buildings and places mentioned in the book; in 1985, the local radio station did a reading of the novel in full; and for many years, Jack Neely, local historian and author, conducted The Suttree Stagger, a marathon eight-hour ramble through downtown interspersed with site-appropriate readings from the text. Last year, the independent bookstore Union Ave celebrated McCarthy’s 78th birthday with book readings, chilled beer, and slices of watermelon. During the party, when Neely read out the majestic, incantatory prologue from Suttree, several people in the audience who had shown up with their hardcover first-editions could be heard murmuring whole baroque lines from memory, and more than one pair of eyes misted over at the last line: “Ruder forms survive.”
Cormac McCarthy was not born in Knoxville. Almost 30 years ago he moved to Texas and then to New Mexico. He’s since turned down every request made by the local Knoxville News Sentinel for an interview, though, to everyone’s stupefaction, this epitome of the anti-media whore showed up on Oprah and answered questions like: “Are you passionate about writing?” Despite his reticence, Knoxville stakes first and undisputed claim to this literary giant, and rightly so. Not merely because this is where Charlie (his birth name) went to school (Knoxville Catholic High School, where he met J Long who became J Bone in Suttree); was first published (in the school magazine); was an altar boy; went to the University of Tennessee (which he dropped out of, twice), met the first of his three wives (a poet); lived with the second (a dancer and restaurateur), and overall spent about 40-odd years of his life (longer than Joyce spent in Dublin), but because Knoxville provided the manure from which his celebrated Southern Gothicism sprang. And no novel reaps a richer, more reeking harvest than Suttree. It is, to gingerly forcep a phrase from its fecal innards, “Cloaca Maxima,” often harrowingly so.
Moonshine and maggots are the holding glue in this book that opens with a suicide and ends with Suttree finding a ripe corpse crawling with yellow maggots in his bed, and whose characters consume gallons of cold beer (Suttree’s drink) and vile, home-brewed whiskey that appears to have been “brewed in a toilet.” How terrific that a bar should be called Suttree’s and what a relief they don’t serve splo whiskey. Drunks dominate this story — a hard-bitten, loyal bunch who look out for one another despite being brutalized by poverty and racism. The ties of community are sacred in the South, and it is this fundamental sense of fellowship that binds these losers. McCarthy is an unsentimental writer, but one can detect him getting slightly moist when he describes how this magnificent string of drunks faithfully visits Suttree when he is ill and broken after his forest wanderings, without a single one of them asking “if what he has were catching.”
Although Suttree is soaked in Knoxville noir, McCarthy’s most personal reference to his childhood city occurs not here but in his most recent novel, The Road. In this despairingly beautiful tale, a father and son, stand-ins for Cormac and his young son for whom he wrote the book, make their way through an almost-destroyed world swirling with ash and ruin. The pair fetch up at the father’s old house in a nameless town that is clearly Knoxville. The boy is afraid of this house with its filthy porch and rotting screens, but the father is drawn in by the phantoms of his childhood. They enter. There is an iron cot, the bones of a cat, buckled flooring. As he stands by the mantelpiece, the father’s thumb passes over “the pinholes from tacks that held stockings forty years ago,” and, suddenly, the warm remembrance of Christmases past washes over him, providing an anguished foil to his current state of homelessness. McCarthy may have scant regard for Proust as a novelist but the Proustian pull of a few pinholes is powerfully demonstrated in this passage.
To Knoxville’s great shame, this house burnt down in 2009 (The childhood home of Knoxville’s only other Pulitzer winner, James Agee, has also long been destroyed). “It was very sad,” says Jack Neely, “but there was some poetry to the fact that in the last few years the house was used by the homeless. I think Cormac McCarthy would have liked that.” Cornelius Suttree would certainly have approved.
Photo courtesy of the author.
The line to see Oprah stretched far down the highway. At the entrance to Diggi Palace, the front of the queue fanned into a thick crowd spread across several police barricades. A row of khaki-uniformed officers stood blocking the entrance. I elbowed my way to the front of the crowd, made eye contact with some police officers and waved my press pass. “Press, okay,” I heard someone say. “Okay?” I said, jumping over the barricade. Perhaps I’d misheard: A group of officers moved towards me, berets and rifles at alert. It was my second day in Jaipur.
I arrived at the Jaipur Literature Festival a day late. After flying into India from New York, the plan had been to spend a day sightseeing with friends in Delhi — despite many India trips over the years, it had been more than 20 years since I visited north India — before taking an early morning train into the Pink City just in time for day two of the festival. This plan turned out to be a something of a miscalculation. Though I’d been following the controversy around Salman Rushdie’s invitation, I didn’t realize that the real drama of the “the greatest literary show on earth” (in Tina Brown’s words) would play out just hours after the festival opened.
Up until the day before JLF began, there were rumors that Rushdie — who reportedly had been dropped from the official program due to “a very real threat of violence at the venue” — planned to make a surprise appearance. Then, on the first day of the festival, Rushdie issued a statement: “I have now been informed by intelligence sources in Maharashtra and Rajasthan that paid assassins from the Mumbai underworld may be on their way to Jaipur to ‘eliminate’ me,” he wrote. “While I have some doubts about the accuracy of this intelligence, it would be irresponsible of me to come to the Festival in such circumstances.”
To voice their disapproval of the circumstances of Rushdie’s absence, four writers, Hari Kunzru, Amitava Kumar, Jeet Thayil, and Ruchir Joshi, read from The Satanic Verses — a book that has been banned in India — in their sessions later that day. They were subsequently advised to leave the festival, and the local police opened an investigation into their activities. There were still four days of panels left.
What was left to discuss? Anything but Rushdie. On guidance from the event organizers, everyone from Shashi Tharoor to David Remnick was talking around the debacle, momentarily alluding to it — knowingly, coyly — but never quite addressing it or the full array of issues it raised on India’s thorny history with censorship, religious fundamentalism, democratic and bureaucratic processes (and Salman Rushdie himself). It was a strange predicament for a symposium of ideas to find itself in. “So many awkward Rushdie references,” I scribbled in my notebook after day three. That’s all they were, though — fleeting references, fleetingly observed.
The show must go on! the organizers seemed to be saying. And, with 200-some authors still lined up to speak, it did. Lively on-stage conversations abounded. High-profile ones did too. Amy Chua debated economic policy. Teju Cole riffed on why it wasn’t necessarily only African writers who inspired him to become a writer. Oprah advocated for women’s rights. Fatima Bhutto discussed the future of Pakistan. Akash Kapur meditated on India’s changing rural landscape. Yet the topic of Rushdie continued to remain largely untouched, and a nagging question lingered in my mind: What kind of real intellectual discussion could go on in a setting that had proved itself so hospitable to self-censorship? When you gathered a hundred-thousand writers and book-lovers and then stripped away the opportunity for a truly free public exchange of ideas, what was left?
At a glance — and, as evidenced by my own exertions to see Oprah in a sari — the answer seemed to be: quite a bit of excitement, and quite a lot of people. All day long, throngs of festival-goers filed through Diggi Palace. When they weren’t frantically crowding into the next session (securing a seat in any session was a herculean task; I gave up on several panels because I couldn’t find any place to position myself within earshot of the stage), attendees bought lunch, drinks, books, and snacks and sized each other up. College students flirted with one another over cigarettes. Small children chased authors for autographs. Expat journalists and writers mingled. Graduate students sipped chai from clay cups. Sassy aunties traded notes. It was, for all appearances, a happy bazaar — if not strictly of ideas, then, broadly, of culture.
The show went on — and what a carnival it was! — but it was impossible to fail to notice what was missing from the festival. “A panel entitled Creativity, Censorship and Dissent” — sponsored by Google — “made only glancing reference to Salman Rushdie in a list of other authors who have been similarly persecuted,” India Today reported. “After a brouhaha following readings from The Satanic Verses … the silence spoke volumes.” In that silence, the boisterous advertising that littered the whole affair seemed louder and all the more off-key. Panels were listed with their specific sponsors noted by name (a panel on “Reconstructing Rumi” was, poetically, sponsored by the maker of heavy-duty construction equipment). The young literati sported cute tote bags (“The Bag of Small Things” and “A Suitable Bag”) issued by Penguin to mark the publisher’s 25th anniversary in India. Food stands selling pakoras, paninis, dosas, daquiris, chaat, and chocolate cake were around every corner. Sitting under a Tata Steel beam listening to one more author make one more emphatic marketing pitch for Katherine Boo’s new book (a title that enjoyed a “deafening publicity blitzkrieg” at the festival, as The Hindu put it), it seemed to me that — in the absence of any higher ideal — the pressure to purchase had become an organizing principal.
I wasn’t the only one questioning the festival’s priorities. At an extravagant 25th “birthday” bash thrown by Penguin at The Raj Palace — think tulle canopies floating above a regal courtyard and mini gulab jamuns served by bowing turbaned waiters — an open bar encouraged widespread theorizing. One Delhi-based writer (a panelist himself) told me he suspected the festival organizers had deliberately leaked news of Rushdie’s invitation months in advance as a publicity stunt. They knew they’d provoke hard-liners, he said; that was their intention. I had trouble imagining that the festival’s organizers were so naïve or cynical about India’s history of free speech controversies — or so ready to use a much-celebrated writer and friend for purely mercenary purposes — but it was an interesting explanation for someone so close to the eye of the storm to make. I was reminded of a simple argument put forward by Sunil Khilnani in The Idea of India: “Indians, no more than their counterparts anywhere else, are not virtuous, moderate, principled, or even especially tolerant people: they are deeply self-interested.” India is a capacious and often confusing place — for “insider” and “outsider” alike — so it didn’t seem far-fetched to suggest that the forces motivating the Rushdie fracas were even more complex than they appeared.
“But it is that self-interest — ” Khilnani goes on, hopefully, “so apparent in the conduct of the political elite — which encourages them to make compromises and accommodations.” Indeed, major compromises had been made to keep the festival alive, and through that compromise, many writers and readers had been connected. But in this case, there had been a significant cost. Although the energy and sense of possibility in Jaipur far surpassed anything I’d encountered at, say, the New Yorker Festival in Manhattan (or even the beloved Brooklyn Book Festival), Jaipur Literature Festival’s inability to send a clear message about the value of free speech was dispiriting.
Take, for example, the cagey statement issued by JLF’s press team after Kunzru’s, Kumar’s, Thayil’s, and Ruchir’s readings:
This press release is being issued on behalf of the organizers of the Jaipur Literature Festival. It has come to their attention that certain delegates acted in a manner during their sessions today which were without the prior knowledge or consent of the organizers. Any views expressed or actions taken by these delegates are in no manner endorsed by the Jaipur Literature Festival.
William Dalrymple, one of the festival’s organizers, has since vocally defended how the JLF team handled the fuss. “I for one hope I am never again forced to choose between putting at risk all the principles upon which literary life is based, if I was to cancel an appearance by Salman, or knowingly igniting a major religious riot if his appearance went ahead,” he wrote in The New York Times, “and so putting at risk the lives of everyone who had come to the festival — including the authors who were our guests, and lines of school children in their blazers and elderly couples with their sandwiches and flasks of chai who had come to hear them.”
Lines of school children! Elderly couples with flasks of chai! Yes, it was a good thing the young and old alike had been able to safely partake in the delights of literary life in vibrant Jaipur. On the plane home, though, I found myself daydreaming about how very different my own earliest encounters with the world of books had been in India, on childhood trips to see my grandparents. With my American pastimes on hold for the summer, I’d plant myself under an oscillating fan and read. Some of those books transported me back to the U.S. and others rushed me away to new faraway lands but many took me deeper into the India I was slowly, haltingly, coming to understand and love. When the supply of books in my suitcase ended, there would be a trip to the bookstore, and after that, to the local lending library, where I’d find still more books to burrow into as hours, days, and weeks passed by. Outside my window, a world of activity whirled on — much of it, due in part to my age, gender, and foreignness, still beyond my comprehension and reach. Inside, alone, I quietly read.
image courtesy of the author
The house was packed to bursting. It was a simple enough premise, yet I had never been to a reading structured the same way: favorite passages delivered by a long list of participants, both published authors and anonymous enthusiasts. Nobody occupied the podium for significantly longer than five minutes. Covered in the panorama: the opening of “Little Expressionless Animals,” the introduction of mathematically intricate Everything and More (about getting out of bed in the morning), self-loathing reflections on the cruise-ship hypnotist from essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” a few pages of “Good Old Neon,” a good deal from the diving board in “Forever Overhead,” one of the more fiendish relationship monologues in “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” an introductory, in-flight sequence from The Pale King (its then recent release, the ostensible spark for the event) and several selections from Infinite Jest, including, most memorably, Don Gately’s dialogue with the specter from his hospital bed and the footnote on the fate of Avril Incandenza’s beloved dog.
The David Foster Wallace Memorial Readathon spanned three to four hours in the basement of Greenpoint bookstore WORD. Not everyone saw it through; the crowd thinned just a little for the latter half. Now and again my own attention took trips around the block and back.
But can I say this? You could feel the love. Here was a group turned out to commemorate the brilliance of one guy’s colossal strivings, his dogged humility, the beautiful nuance and intricate recursions of a mind pushing past the simple given, which mind was everywhere and nowhere in the spaces between those of us gathered to follow his words as they were given life, and enlivened in turn, by each speaker, the glittering humor in their eyes, a sense of having been found. What experience the author mined at extremes of individual solitude gained in the audience a forgiveness, a redemption, a gentle receptivity of spirit. That feeling belonged to everyone.
The point, it became enormously clear, was not that David Foster Wallace stepped wretchedly into the inky hereafter, leaving us only to mourn, to puzzle the question of his life, or to take heed by seeing around his work to “The Depressed Person.” It was that he first succeeded at writing volume on volume of powerful prose, fiction and non, the concentrated, interwoven achievement of which we could feel, supersedes — present tense — the fragmenting wonder-farm telenexus in which every last one of our imaginations dissolve on the descent to wherever it is we will land in our desire to pass on whatever it is we will pass on.
And by “us,” zooming out now in my longing from that one room in Greenpoint, I mean, people. Everyone.
To anchor a marathon reading an author must have created a singular story. As it happens, the Wallace reading at WORD registered among the first in a decided upswing in recent marathon literary events. In the past year, New York City has seen and heard readings of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”, Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, Frederic Tuten’s The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and, to bend genres, which the marathon reading inherently does, Elevator Repair Service’s productions of The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby.
As these things usually go, lit marathons happen during the holiday season and June 16th AKA Bloomsday. The New York City marathon reading in longest standing is actually not of fiction but poetry: the St. Mark’s Church New Year’s event during which scores of poets give breath to their own verse and that of others. It dates to the ’70s. When they opened a new community space in Greenpoint, editors at lit journal Triple Canopy were well aware in choosing to organize a reading in late January (duration: 53 hours) that a motley group of NYC artists had once gathered every New Year’s Day at the Paula Cooper Gallery to orate Stein’s The Making of Americans; the practice began in the ’80s, going on hiatus with the new millennium’s arrival. On both the East and West Coasts, Bloomsday inspires numerous lit marathons around Joyce, whether the text is Ulysses or, for the more fearless, those willing to snatch beauty and truth from the mouth of nonsense, Finnegans Wake. With the holiday in mind, the Housing Works in Soho stages a four-hour reading of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In response to popular sentiment, the same organizers played a part last November in bringing to fruition a reading of “Bartleby, the Scrivener” near what was then occupied Liberty Square.
As well, the novelist Jonathan Lethem undertook, with help, a marathon reading of his own Chronic City over several nights in the fall of 2009.
Lynne Tillman, author most recently of novel American Genius, A Comedy and story collection Someday This Will Be Funny, has participated in several recent marathon events. When asked what might illuminate the trend, she spoke to an unlikely source of interest: “The Combatant Status Review Tribunals, pp. 002954-003064: A Public Reading” conducted initially in 2007 and subsequently reenacted annually at MOMA (see the current video installation, “9 Scripts from a Nation at War”). As the prison camp at Guantanamo continues to operate, a collective of artists bring unedited transcripts of U.S. military tribunals to the public eye.
Another source from the art scene is performance artist Marshall Weber, who, since 1994, has delivered solo lit marathons of titles ranging from William Vollmann’s The Rifles to Homer’s The Odyssey to The Bible. As for what might spur such a marathon into being, Weber writes on the Brooklyn Artists Alliance’s website: “The cycle is an evocation of the hope contained in human literature and the joy of street reading as well as an exorcism of the demonic forces of illiteracy, fundamentalism and textural literalism.”
Regarding the marathon reading, poet Barbara Swift Bauer offers by e-mail: “I think what’s important is that it is a way of publicly honoring the writer.” There is something wonderful about how a great author’s voice refracts through a reading audience gathered for such an observance. Writing is a solitary activity; writing a novel especially so. Just imagining the effort required is enough to make many readers, or reading attendees, go pale. We think of novelists almost as advertisements of individuality, exemplary studies of what a person can achieve in solitude. In a marathon reading, something of the division between individual and collective is closed: see anonymous members of the audience glow as the author’s individuated voice carries through them. Not coincidentally, such readers’ own individuality stands out all the more: which passage of the author’s work did the reader choose? How does the reader deliver the given passage that so many of us looking on have read before?
In Constantine’s Sword, his epic history punctuated by memoir, novelist and historian James Carroll envisages the birth of Christianity unfolding. In the chapter called “The Healing Circle,” he correlates how he and other loved ones grieved the loss of a friend with the methods those nearest to Jesus might have followed in commemorating his passing:
Lament. Texts. Silence. Stories. Food. Drink. Songs. More texts. Poems. We wove a web of meanings that joined us…Our circle was an extended American version of the Irish wake, of Italian keening, of African drumming in honor of ancestors. It was a version of the Jewish custom of ‘sitting shiva,’ from the Hebrew word for seven, referring to the seven days of mourning after the death of a loved one…To imagine Jesus as risen was to expect that soon all would be.
With its immersive, beatific reach the lit marathon stands in funny relation to organized religion in general and Christianity in particular. At a time when church attendance in many parts of the country is down, even as the voting power of the evangelical bloc stands in ever sheerer relief, children of the heartland and of the South continue to head for the coasts, where lit marathons multiply.
There exists a definite likeness with organized religion’s governing impulse in the reverence inherent to the marathon reading. In one sense, carrying on to an audience like a non-ordained minister is the height of Christian heresy (though, certainly, most fiction is less offensive than, say, your average goth rocker’s sacrilegious imagery); in another, a novel might be the brilliant lived sermon that found no root in organized religion as currently composited. Faith and doubt exist in dialectic, after all. It is difficult to believe the person who claims to know one while having no experience of the other.
Perhaps it is the seeming disproportion of a full novel’s demands that gives readers in the heartland pause. On his having steered clear of the lit marathon phenomenon, one Midwestern-based novelist writes, “People here don’t seem to think that they should make a lengthy claim upon your attention.” Another, raised in the South, reflects that perhaps he has never participated in a lit marathon for the simple reason that he has “always been inclined toward an early bedtime.” A veteran of many a writers’ conference and their attendant readings refers to the marathon variety as “a perfect storm of not-likingness.”
In that inclination for avoidance, we can recognize that the work of an artist must remain a thing apart. Tillman shakes off religious connotation in describing the pull of the marathon, even as her language borders it: “There’s so little ritual in our lives, or at least in my life, and there is an aspect to these marathons that’s ritualistic. It’s about as close to ritual as I get. Myself, I don’t use that kind of language, but there’s something, I would say, about participating in a reading in a room full of people, most of whom you don’t know, and being part of an event that is one of reverence for books, and love of books. There isn’t all that much love of books in our culture anymore—not the larger culture.”
The marathon reading usually gives fair indication of that intra-fictional divide between the canonical, the career-driven, and the striving — even as any feeling of great division melts away over the marathon’s immersive course. In the latter hours of a long reading, it can feel that the story being told is the only story there is to tell, or at least the only one that could bring together the group with whom you as listener or reader have now weathered so many hours.
“There were maybe 40 people around for the conclusion near midnight Sunday night,” wrote Sam Frank of Triple Canopy. “People kept coming in to this room full of cult members, the Church of Stein, consecrating our new space with half a million words.” Said Amanda Bullock, director of public programming at Housing Works (she dubbed their reading of Dickens’ The Christmas Carol “a 5k”): “It’s fun I think for the readers to read the work of someone they admire, in tribute, and to all hang out.”
Of participating as both reader and listener, Tillman muses, “The distribution of pleasure is greater. You have a more comradely feeling with your fellow readers, and since it’s not your own work, it’s less nerve-wracking. I mean, you want to do a good job because you want to do a good job; but it’s not your work. When I was a kid, I got a lot of pleasure being read to; if you can get into that mood, and because a marathon is so long, maybe it allows you to get there, you can feel more dreamy. Also there’s something about it that may be very comforting, like watching the same movie again.”
Seizing something like a movie’s active engagement, recent years on the West Coast find theater groups such as Word for Word trying on for marathon-size new titles like Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, while, out east, the Elevator Repair Service ushered in theatergoers by the hundreds to experience their rendition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
As imagined by Elevator Repair Service amid the boredom of weird modern office-place pastiche, Fitzgerald’s novel takes possession of the workers and whatever unspoken ambition brought them there: the slump-shouldered drone at the outmoded computer takes on the role of Nick; the janitor becomes Tom, the well-dressed sales rep, Daisy. The distant, slow-speaking boss assumes the guise within the guise of Gatsby himself. The story never leaves the one room.
This particular marathon’s focus is not a novel to the exclusion of all else, but the manner in which we bridge Fitzgerald’s words with our present being. The actors win laughter by calling attention to how their own unique features do — or do not — match the ideal of those described on the page. Jim Fletcher, who plays Gatsby, tilts his head to show a pronounced bald spot as Nick reads of his host’s exemplary head of hair. An antic hive of allusiveness (rarely have sound effects been so integral to a marathon reading), Gatz owes much to the sensibility of a show like The Simpsons: the modernist classic spruced up by myriad post-modern threads. The woodenness with which Fletcher speaks Gatsby’s lines underscores the character’s dubious identity; it also hints at how a novel, that which aspires to stand outside time, cannot but recede, adopt layers of age that will either diminish or augment its resonance. In this way, those famous closing lines of Fitzgerald’s seem to rattle the limitation of their own artifice (“boats against…”), a flair that would ripple outward in the later work of such authors as Barth, Barthelme, Borges, Carter, Coover, DeLillo, Pynchon — and Wallace.
If it has happened yet, no one told me, but to imagine a marathon reading around Infinite Jest makes for an entrancing pause. (Make it in summer when teachers are free; encourage costume; start working on those pharmaceutical pronunciations.) Few novels parade an aesthetic of such exhaustive intelligence, the humor of All Too Much; the characters on its pages grapple with their own slides and recoveries in the way of All Too Much. The book’s addictive depths were built to give ballast.
Where Fitzgerald casts feeling across the brow of novelistic self-consciousness, Wallace revels in oiling and refashioning the squeaky wheel of novel-ness, to arrive at what the enterprise represents at its core, the entire literary lineage. The lit marathon tempts a similarly immense question by bringing the reader out of seclusion. Of the way it wraps around us, exhausts our capacity to pay attention while also abiding our coming and goings — we can drop in, drop out, and when we get back, chances are good it will still be there — the poet Susan Terris, echoing Tillman, reflects, “I guess the singular joy of the marathon reading is being read aloud to, which most of us love — exactly in the same way we did when we were children.”
Image Credit: Flickr/Elvert Barnes